When we last checked on the Phoenix Coyotes, the wards of the league were hanging around the respectable neighborhood of the NHL standings despite the parlous financial state of the club, home crowds the size of the waiting list on a Friday night at P.F. Chang's, and a roster that, with a couple of notable exceptions, looked less like a carefully-constructed hockey team than it did a warmer version of Mystery, Alaska.
Now well past the midway mark of the season, the tale of these humble hockey orphans who learned to steal -- how about those two late regulation goals and stunning overtime win in Detroit on Tuesday? -- has taken another twist.
And this time we don't mean Oliver Twist.
When the sun rose over all of Gary Bettman's vast kingdom on Thursday, the Coyotes were in fifth place in the Western Conference, a mere point behind equally surprising Colorado and two up on emerging Los Angeles. They looked, in a word -- or more correctly, a half word -- legit.
Yes, you might have seen this movie before. Last year at the All-Star break, the Coyotes were in the same position. Then the season went into the commode. From February until the end of the regular schedule, Phoenix won 12 of 31 games and all the good work that former coach Wayne Gretzky had done with a callow team was wiped away by a 13th-place finish.
There is no guarantee that the Coyotes won't stumble their way out of the playoffs, even though that improbable 5-4 win at Joe Louis Arena is a solid indicator it shouldn't happen. But general manager Don Maloney has a better hedge against a meltdown than he did in the late winter and spring of 2009. Instead of trying to develop young players on the fly and march a Children's Crusade into the playoffs, the Coyotes are icing a mostly veteran team -- albeit one that consists of players, beyond right wing Shane Doan and defenseman Ed Jovanovski, that have never had impeccable NHL pedigrees.
"The big difference," Maloney says, "is we have guys who have 500, 600 NHL games. They've been through the wars. They know how to win a one-goal game."
"If you look at the talent, it's probably better than most people realize," says Doan, the captain. "If you look what guys have done in their best years, (Radim) Vrbata's scored (27), Petr Prucha had 30, Taylor Pyatt had 20 and I've had 30. Robert Lang's been a big scorer. We have seven or eight guys who look like they could get 20 to 25. Right now in this league, 20 goals is pretty good."
Doan is peering out of glasses tinted the color of a desert sunrise. Vrbata, a disaster in Tampa Bay last season before finishing in the Czech Republic, did have 27 goals in 2007-08, but it was the only time he's cracked 20 since his NHL debut in 2001-02. Prucha earned his 30 goals as a power-play specialist with the New York Rangers in the offensively puffy post-lockout season of 2005-06. In the succeeding three, Prucha scored 35 in 168 games. Pyatt's one 20-goal season came in Vancouver in 2006-07. Lang was playing effectively before a torn Achilles cut short his season in Montreal last winter, but the 39-year-old last averaged a point-per-game in 2003-04.
The agglomeration of middling offensive talent has left the Coyotes about where they should be -- 11th in the conference in goals, which, incidentally, is ahead of the Red Wings.
Scottie Upshall leads the club with 18, a breakout season that makes the Coyotes who they are -- the French Foreign Legion of the NHL. The 26-year-old is a fascinating case study in the nature of the "role player," a designation that can sometimes be a curse as much as a blessing. The sixth player taken in the 2002 draft, Upshall wound up being slotted in as a third-liner after Nashville sent him to Philadelphia as part of the Peter Forsberg trade. He was comfortable doing the crashing and banging. Maybe too comfortable.
"I'd found a home in the league creating energy," Upshall says. "But I think when I found myself in other situations, I didn't bear down like I should have. Carrying the puck on a three-on-two, I wouldn't try to make moves. When I got here" -- he was traded to Phoenix at the 2009 deadline for Daniel Carcillo, and you hope Flyers GM Paul Holmgren would want a mulligan on that deal -- "guys like (Doan) told me to trust my game. Doan and Matthew Lombardi (another 2009 trade deadline acquisition from Calgary in the Olli Jokinen deal) helped me so much. Now I see myself scoring goals, see myself involved late in the game making a big play."
On another team blessed with more talent and a heftier payroll -- the Coyotes' league-approved cap hit is around $41.5 million - Lombardi and Upshall might still be in a complementary role. In Phoenix, the pair have been the fulcrum of the first line with Doan, riding shotgun in recent weeks
"The way we put it to our team is that we have to hang around in games and find a way to win," says coach Dave Tippett, the former Dallas coach whose Coyotes have a mere plus-five goal differential. "Limit mistakes. Play percentages. And take advantage of our opportunities. It's about the sum of the parts, not the specific parts. We ask our forwards to check and our defensemen to score."
And so the blueliners have. Phoenix has gotten 31 goals from its defense, including a combined 24 by Jovanovski, budding star Keith Yandle and Adrian Aucoin, another of those high-mileage but highly professional players Maloney imported this season. That's 21.5 percent of the team's goals. In comparison, Washington, the only NHL team that has passed the 200-goal mark, has 23 from its defensemen -- or 11.1 percent.
Gee, isn't wallowing in some statistics better than hanging around downtown Phoenix waiting for a Judge Redfield T. Baum's bankruptcy court ruling?
Doan said the jurist's name hasn't been mentioned around the dressing room in weeks. No, the other day he and Stan Wilson, the Coyotes' equipment manager, were discussing Teppo Numminen. They were trying to figure out if Numminen, the estimable defenseman who played most of his career with Winnipeg/Phoenix, had ever won a playoff series with the franchise. (Numminen, who holds the franchise record for games played, will be inducted into the team's ring of honor before Saturday's match against the Rangers.)
The answer is no. The Finn didn't start playing in the NHL until 1988-89. The last time the franchise made it past the first round was 1987.
Maybe these 21st-century Oliver Twists do wind up writing the most delightful story of the season. (Wouldn't you love to see a league-owned team upset some owners by knocking off their clubs? Nothing better than a great conflict of interest angle to the playoffs.)
Of course, the Western Conference is a minefield -- Detroit is looming in ninth place, currently six points back of the Coyotes -- and the March schedule, with five straight road games in the East followed by a single home game followed by two more matches in the eastern time zone, is not exactly, as Tippett puts it, "Phoenix friendly." Nor is the cavalry riding into town at the trade deadline as it does for most playoff contenders looking to upgrade. Somehow you guess Maloney won't be in on any Ilya Kovalchuk discussions.
"If San Jose brings in another D-man," Upshall says, "well, all I can say is that we'll compete with them to the bitter end. Bring it on. We'll be ready."
In our fun with numbers portion of the program, consider this: Looking at the Sidney Crosby vs. Alexander Ovechkin numbers, Pittsburgh seems to do better when the two most important NHL players in two decades share the ice. In Pittsburgh's wins over the Capitals during their magnificent seven-game 2009 playoff series, the pair averaged 343 seconds on the ice together per game. In Washington's wins, they were on the ice simultaneously for 237 seconds, more than a minute-and-a-half less. Sure, that's only two shifts-plus, but maybe somebody smarter than On The Fly can divine some meaning -- if any -- in it.
For those Nervous Nellies in Montreal who are now yapping for general manager Bob Gainey to trade laconic 22-year-old Carey Price and anoint 24-year-old Jaroslav Halak as the No. 1 goalie, please take a giant step back from the situation. Maybe Price doesn't blossom into the Second Coming of Ken Dryden, but it is still far too early to tell in a profession rife with late bloomers such as Miikka Kiprusoff, Tim Thomas and others who have had a far skimpier portfolio than a fifth overall draft pick.
Although no two circumstances are identical, Montrealers -- who live in a province where the motto on the license plate reads (in French), "I remember" -- should recall the early career of another goaltending prodigy: Patrick Roy.
Roy was bulletproof while leading the Canadiens to a surprise Stanley Cup as a rookie in 1986, but he essentially split the job with Brian Hayward the following three seasons before claiming it utterly in the 1989 playoffs. (Roy played in 46, 45 and 48 regular-season games between 1986-87 and 1988-89 while Hayward had 37, 39 and 36.) Obviously, Price has not come anywhere close to Roy in terms of tangible achievements, but he has shown flashes of brilliance. Halak has modestly better numbers this season and a more energized presence, but ultimately Price might have a higher ceiling than the Slovak who will start for his country in the Vancouver Olympics.
As long as the division of labor between his goalies does not divide the dressing room, Gainey should be in no rush to move either goalie prior to the trade deadline. This summer, he can choose between the restricted free agents -- Price or Halak. Or, again, both.